Stand up… Harper Lee has passed

harper lee

Harper Lee has died.  She was 89 years old.

Author of one of the most wonderful (and wonderfully overrated) novels of all time, Harper herself was a bit of an enigma.  A soft-spoken and somewhat reclusive resident of the small southern town of Monroeville, Alabama (the same tiny town where she was born is also where she would die), Nelle Harper Lee would become one of the most influential American novelists of the 20th century having only written one book.  But oh, what a book!  Harper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird was so successful that there was simply no need for her to write anything else; her lone novel eclipsing the entire body of work of her childhood friend, the brash literary genius Truman Capote.

She was a one-hit wonder for nearly all of her life until somebody at HarperCollins got wise and decided to make a small fortune last year by unscrupulously publishing her “rough draft” of Mockingbird, entitled Go Set a Watchman.  I initially withstood the urge to read this exploitative effort because I believed that some things should remain sacred, but the historian in me eventually won out and I compromised my principles and bought a copy.  And I’m sorry I did.  I made it about three-quarters of the way through the book before I completely lost interest and let the rest of the story go unread.  I should have known better, but HarperCollins got my blood money all the same.

51EU92Bi4GLdon’t judge a book by its cover…

It’s a shame, really, because To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of my favorite books, and one of a handful of novels I have read and re-read just for pleasure.  Damn near everyone has to read it at some point in high school, but I was about eleven years old when I first read it (although my first reading was equally mandatory).  My father, who was a literature professor, was fond of forcing books upon me and my brother during the summer months, even going so far as to assign us book reports, no doubt in the hopes of supplementing our public school education and preventing our tiny brains from atrophying any further from non-stop Nintendo playing.  [note:  we did not have a Nintendo growing up, and we had to visit our friends’ houses to get our fix.]

mockingbirdcover…unless its one of the most iconic book covers of all time

Though Mockingbird is set in the depression, its coming-of-age story is truly timeless.  Anyone who’s spent any of their youth growing up in the south will easily recognize chunks of their own childhood in the novel, which is one of the reasons I have such a special place in my heart for this book.  In fact, I would argue that this is perhaps the single greatest and most accurate account of childhood in all of fiction.  But the primary reason this book remains so beloved is not its depiction of the innocence and experience of growing up– rather, it’s the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) way in which it addressed racism and social injustice.  Mockingbird arguably opened up more hearts and minds to these issues than any novel had before (or since), and for that reason alone it will remain required reading in most schools for the interminable future.

When it comes down to it, though, my deep affinity for the book can ultimately be traced to one Atticus Finch.  He was the quintessential father figure– a hard-working man who was as tough as he was fair, as smart as he was honest, and whose bleeding heart carried a deep love for his family along with an unflinching sense of right and wrong.  He embodied the kind of man I aspired to be when I grew up.  In all the books I’ve read, few fictional characters have been as admirable or inspirational to me as Atticus was.

atticusfinchmy hero (and yes, I think the movie is better than the book– sue me)

As soon as I finished the novel for the first time, I knew that Atticus Finch was my literary hero, but it was Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus in the brilliantly cast film adaptation that would later cement the character’s place in my heart, so much so that I can remember getting emotional years ago when I heard Gregory Peck had died.  One of my functionally-literate co-workers at the time seemed shocked.  “Jeez, it’s not like you knew the guy,” she said.  “You don’t understand,” I replied, “I, and millions of people like me, just lost the father I never had.  So yeah… I feel like I knew the guy.”

It’s with the same sense of familiarity that I am now mourning the loss of Harper Lee, and I can’t help but feel that Harper deserves the same kind of respect shown to Atticus when he’s leaving the courtroom:

R.I.P., Harper Lee.

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